Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Binding treaty no longer a realistic goal for climate summit, UN chief concedes

Ben Webster, Environment Editor

A legally binding agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions is no longer a realistic goal for next month’s Copenhagen summit, the UN Secretary-General says.
According to Ban Ki Moon such an agreement will not be signed next month and the most likely outcome is voluntary targets, which countries could announce but then ignore.
He said that several key countries were not ready to sign up to binding targets and that the best the world could hope for from the summit would be “political commitments”. Mr Ban said he hoped that they would be legally binding within a year but would be dependent on each country.
His comments, made in London, marked a significant retreat from the UN’s previous plan for a new treaty to be signed at Copenhagen to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Mr Ban said: “It may be realistic if we think Copenhagen will not be the final word on all these matters. But if we agree on a strong politically binding commitment that will be, I think, a reasonable success. Then the post-Copenhagen negotiations will continue so that we have a legally binding agreement as soon as possible.

“Each and every country has their own domestic constraints when they go back — no country will be totally free, that is the difficulty. It is a very complex process including verification systems, targets and money. It is not an easy task. That is why I am saying Copenhagen is not the final word.”
Mr Ban also said that developed nations would have to increase the amount that they paid to poorer countries to help them to adapt to climate change. Asked whether he believed that the European Union’s proposal of a fund of up to $50 billion of public money a year would be sufficient, he said: “As we go into the future, I think that should be scaled up.”
He said that generous funding needed to be agreed to build trust among developing countries, which have accused richer nations of creating climate change but leaving them to face the consequences. “We should admit that there are some suspicions and distrust, particularly on the part of developing countries.”
He also suggested that the global target for limiting the temperature increase to 2C above pre-industrial levels might have to be adjusted because it could still result in sea-level rises inundating many small islands. “These small-island developing countries say that it should be a maximum of 1.5C. For them it’s a matter of life and death.”
Mr Ban said that he was working closely with members of the US Senate, which is debating proposed legislation on cutting carbon dioxide emissions. He also suggested that President Obama and other world leaders needed to be present at the end of the Copenhagen summit to ensure an ambitious political agreement. “The urgency and importance of the work requires political leadership. I would expect many leaders will come.”
Mr Ban was speaking as 50 African countries boycotted UN meetings on climate change in Barcelona. They accused developed nations of settingweak targets for cutting emissions. The African countries said that they would not discuss how developing countries could reduce their emissions until there were more stretching commitments from richer nations. “I don’t think we can get to a result in the way we’re going now,” said Kamel Djemouai, the Algerian negotiator who chairs the Africa group.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that developed countries should reduce emissions by 25 to 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, but the targets announced have fallen short.
Anders Turesson, the chief delegate from Sweden, which holds the EU presidency, said that while EU leaders shared the Africans’ concern about the low level of pledges, their tactic of limiting the discussion to emission targets was unproductive.

African nations make a stand at UN climate talks

John Vidal in Barcelona, Tuesday 3 November 2009 23.26 GMT
African countries have said they are prepared to provoke a major UN crisis if the US and other rich countries do not start to urgently commit themselves to deeper and faster greenhouse gas emission cuts.
In a dramatic day in Barcelona, UN officials were forced to step in after 55 African countries, in an unprecedented show of unity, called for a suspension of all further negotiations on the Kyoto protocol until substantial progress was made by rich countries on emission cuts.
Earlier, the UN chair had been forced to abandon two working groups after the Africa group refused to take part.
The African countries were supported by all other developing country blocks at the talks. In a series of statements, the G77 plus China group of 130 nations, the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis), the Least Developed Countries (LDC) group, as well as Bolivia and several Latin America countries, all broadly backed the African action.
The move by developing countries reflects their deep and growing frustration over the slow progress that industrialised countries are making towards agreeing cuts. With less than three days full negotiating time left between now and the opening of the final talks at Copenhagen, the split between rich and poor countries threatens to blow the talks fatally off course.
Bruno Sekoli, chair of the LDC group, said: "Africa and Africans are dying now while those who are historically responsible are not taking actions."
Algeria, which chairs the Africa group, backed by representatives from Gambia and Kenya, said rich countries were "more concerned with political and economic feasibility" while the poorest were "struggling to survive" with climate change.
In a press conference, the poorest countries demanded that the rich adopt the science-backed target of a 40% overall cut on emissions on 1990 levels. So far, rich countries have pledged an aggregate of less than 10%. The US, the world's second biggest polluter, has pledged to cut around 4% on 1990 levels, or 17% on 2005 levels.
In some of the most frantic diplomacy seen in the talks so far, delegates to hurriedly agreed to dedicate six of the 10 remaining negotiating sessions to discussions on mid-term emissions reductions. The decision received widespread support from all developing countries who stressed the importance of delivering real progress.
"African countries have shown they are not going to sit back and accept a bad deal in Copenhagen," said a spokeswomen for Oxfam international.
"The poorest countries say they are dying now and the rich are just sitting back doing nothing. Hopefully they will take action now," said Asad Rehman, head of international climate with Friends of the Earth.
"The world's largest historical emitter, the US, is missing in action during the climate negotiations, on its targets, on its finance – and the developing world is rightfully calling them out on it," said Greenpeace USA climate campaign director Damon Moglen.
"It is clear that for many countries, enough is enough. The fact that this has come today from countries including Kenya, President Obama's ancestral home, should be his wake-up call. Obama can no longer hide behind failed congressional legislation. He must provide ambitious, science-based emissions reductions targets and come to table in Copenhagen."
The talks, which are some of the most complex ever conducted, depend on all countries eventually agreeing to everything. They would be seriously jeopardised to the point of certain failure in Copenhagen next month if the African countries walk out again.

UN secretary general calls for increase in pledged funding for climate change

$100bn on offer is 'good start' but not enough, says Ban Ki-moon
Damian Carrington, Tuesday 3 November 2009 13.18 GMT
Money paid by rich countries to fight global warming will have to "be scaled up" from the $100bn a year on offer, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said today.
Finance is the key, said Ban, to successful negotations on a global treaty to fight climate change, due to conclude at UN talks next month in Copenhagen.
Ban also revealed that he will next week meet all the US Senators involved in deliberations over the energy and climate bill. Agreement on that bill is seen as vital to negotiations, as without it the US team in Copenhagen will have little domestic mandate to agree a deal. The announcement of the personal intervention of the secretary general is a clear sign of the importance of the matter.
However, in a separate development, Democratic leaders in the Senate conceded today they would not attempt to vote through climate change legislation before Copenhagen. Barbara Boxer, the chair of the environment and public works committee, said the final draft of a climate change bill would be submitted to the US Environmental Protection Agency for a five-week analysis before being put to a vote. That in effect rules out a Senate vote before Copenhagen starts on 7 December.
Gordon Brown was praised by Ban as having originated the $100bn figure for the total global public and private funding needed each year by 2020 to tackle climate change. It would be spent on cutting emissions by providing green technologies, and on enabling countries to adapt to more frequent fierce storms and rising sea levels. The figure was adopted last week by the European Union as its official negotiating position for Copenhagen and is the only offer on the table so far.

Ban says that the $100bn figure 'should be scaled up as we go along'
"I think it can be a good start but it needs to be scaled up," said Ban.
Development groups have estimated the money needed at up to $400bn a year. But the amount by which it would need to increase was uncertain, he said: "We have to see how measures are effective. As time goes by we may need to change arrangements."
Ban's senior climate adviser, Janos Pasztor, added: "The needs are obviously much larger and it needs to be scaled up."
Developing nations are demanding significant new funding at the climate negotiations, which are continuing this week in Barcelona, and deep cuts in rich country emissions in exchange for pledges to curb their own fast-growing carbon emissions.
Problems in the talks erupted in public today with African nations boycotting meetings, forcing their cancellation. They want rich nations to commit to much bigger cuts in their emissions than they have so far, arguing that African countries will suffer most from global warming yet are least responsible.
Ban said last week that the negotiations were "gridlocked" but today said that "significant" progress was being made. A critical issue, he said, was a lack of trust between developed and developing nations, which a suitably large financial settlement would help to bridge.
"Too many countries have domestic problems," he added, without naming the US and the difficulty President Obama faces getting his climate bill through the Senate. Ban also revealed that he had met all the committee members of the House of Representatives both individually and collectively, before the it passed its climate bill.
The new extended timetable announced by Boxer – an attempt to win Republican support – is bound to dismay Ban as well as European leaders in Washington today to try to press the US to act on climate change.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is scheduled to address a joint session of the Senate and house later today on climate change, Afghanistan and other issues.
Boxer had been struggling with fellow Republicans on her committee who want more time to participate in producing a draft climate change bill, and object to some key measure it contains.
The near-boycott by Republicans and criticism from conservative Democrats in the environment committee have sharply reduced the prospects for passing a rigorous climate change law at all – let alone before Copenhagen.
Earlier, Ban confirmed there is now no chance that the Copenhagen summit will produce a legally binding agreement, as there is too little time to work through all the complex details. "Copenhagen will not be the final word." Instead a "politically binding" agreement must be reached, he said, with strong consensus on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, helping nations adapt to a warmer world and finance and technology funds. Ban joins the UN's top climate official, Yvo de Boer, Merkel and the UK government in conceding that a legally enforceable treaty is now unreachable at Copenhagen.
But he said: "We don't have a plan B and we are not lowering the bar. We still [retain] the highest possible targets."

Judge rules activist's beliefs on climate change akin to religion

Tim Nicholson entitled to protection for his beliefs, and his claim over dismissal will now be heard by a tribunal
Karen McVeigh, Tuesday 3 November 2009 20.42 GMT
When Rupert Dickinson, the chief executive of one of Britain's biggest property firms, left his BlackBerry behind in London while on a business trip to Ireland, he simply ordered one of his staff to get on a plane and deliver the device to him.
For Dickinson's then head of sustainability, Tim Nicholson, the errand was much more than an executive indulgence: it embodied the contempt with which his boss treated his deep philosophical beliefs about climate change.
In a significant decisiontoday , a judge found Nicholson's views on the environment were so deeply held that they were entitled to the same protection as religious convictions, and ruled that an employment tribunal should hear his claim that he was sacked because of his beliefs.
The judgment could open the door for people to take their employers to tribunals over their stance on a range of issues, from animal rights to feminism.
Earlier this year, Nicholson, 42, claimed that his beliefs had put him at odds with senior executives at his former employer Grainger, the UK's largest listed residential property company. When he was made redundant in July last year, he launched his legal action.
He alleged that while the firm had good written policies on the environment it had refused to abide by them, and claimed that when he tried to encourage the company to become more responsible, he was obstructed by his bosses. Dickinson, in particular, had shown "contempt" for his beliefs, Nicholson told the employment appeal tribunal, citing the BlackBerry incident as evidence.
In today's ruling, Mr Justice Michael Burton decided that: "A belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations." Under those regulations it is unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of their religious or philosophical beliefs.
The written ruling, which looked at whether philosophy could be underpinned by a scientific belief, quoted from Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy and ultimately concluded that a belief in climate change, while a political view about science, can also be a philosophical one. The same judge ruled last year that Al Gore's environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth was political and partisan as he assessed whether it should be shown to schools.
Nicholson's solicitor, Shah Qureshi, said: "This case confirms, for the ever increasing number of people who take a philosophical stance on the environment and climate change, and who lead their lives according to those principles, that they are protected from discrimination."
In March, employment judge David Neath gave Nicholson permission to take the firm to tribunal over his treatment, but the ruling was challenged by Grainger on the grounds that green views are not the same as religious or philosophical beliefs. The firm maintained that environmental views are political and a "lifestyle choice" which cannot be compared to religion or philosophy.
Legal experts said tonight the ruling could usher in future damages claims over the way firms handle environmental concerns. Peter Mooney, head of the Employment Law Advisory Service, said: "This would open the floodgates for others who believe their employers have victimised them simply because of their views on the environment."
Camilla Palmer, of Leigh Day and Co, said it opened doors for an even wider category of deeply held beliefs, such as feminism, vegetarianism or humanism. "It's a great decision. Why should it only be religions which are protected?"
At the Employment Appeal Tribunal last month, Dinah Rose QC, for Nicholson, said: "The philosophical belief in this case is that mankind is headed towards catastrophic climate change and that, as a result, we are under a duty to do all that we can to live our lives so as to mitigate or avoid that catastrophe for future generations. It addresses the question, what are the duties that we own to the environment and why?"
Nicholson, who now works for a charity promoting greener healthcare, said he was delighted by the ruling. He said: "It is the moral and ethical values that I hold that have motivated me to action on climate change and these moral and ethical values are similar to those promoted by the world's major religions."
However, he did not believe that climate change was the new religion, because "it is based on scientific evidence, not faith or spirituality".
Grainger's corporate affairs director, Dave Butler, said: "This decision merely confirms that views on the importance of environmental protection are capable of amounting to a philosophical belief.
"Grainger absolutely maintains, as it has done from the very outset of these proceedings, that Mr Nicholson's redundancy was driven solely by the operational needs of the company."
Five tests
In his written judgment, Mr Justice Burton outlined five tests to determine whether a philosophical belief could come under employment regulations on religious discrimination
• The belief must be genuinely held.
• It must be a belief and not an opinion or view based on the present state of information available.
• It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life.
• It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
• It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
Humanism was given as an example meeting the criteria, while belief in a political party or the supreme nature of Jedi knights, from the Star Wars movies, were offered as ones that do not.

US puts climate debate on hold for five weeks despite plea by Merkel

• Senate delay means no bill likely before Copenhagen• German leader makes historic Congress address
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington and Damian Carrington, Tuesday 3 November 2009 20.55 GMT
International negotiators lost one of the key elements to a successful deal on global warming today after Democratic leaders in the US Congress ruled out passing a climate change law before 2010. In the latest obstacle on the road to the UN summit in Copenhagen next month, Senate leaders ordered a five-week pause to review the costs of the legislation.
The delay, which would push a Senate vote on a climate change bill into next year, frustrates a last-minute push by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to get America to commit itself at home to cut greenhouse gas emissions before the Copenhagen meeting. World leaders – and US officials – have repeatedly said US legislation is crucial to a deal on global warming.
Merkel used a historic address to a joint session of Congress today to urge America to act on climate change, stating that success at Copenhagen rested on the willingness of all countries to accept binding reductions in carbon emissions.
The first German leader to ever address both houses of Congress, Merkel said a deal was comparable in importance to the tearing down of the Berlin wall 20 years ago. "We need the readiness of all countries to accept internationally binding obligations," she said to loud applause from Democrats. Republicans largely sat in silence. "There is no doubt about it. In December, the world will look to us: the Europeans and the Americans. I am convinced once we … show ourselves ready to adopt binding agreements we will also be able to persuade China and India."
Merkel also raised her concerns with Barack Obama in a visit to the White House earlier today. He told reporters: "Chancellor Merkel has been an extraordinary leader on the issue of climate change. And the US, Germany, and countries around the world are all beginning to recognise why it is so important that we work in common to stem the potential catastrophe that could result if we see global warming continuing unabated."
Ban is also pressing the Senate to act before Copenhagen. Speaking in London, he said he would next week meet all the US senators involved in the deliberations over the energy and climate bill. Agreement on that bill is seen as vital: without it, the US team in Copenhagen will have little domestic mandate to agree a deal. The announcement of the personal intervention of the UN secretary general is a clear sign of the importance of the matter.
However, the appeals for urgent action were overridden by political concerns in the Senate, which formally began debate on a proposed climate change law last week. The House of Representatives narrowly passed a climate change bill in June. But the Senate version has been repeatedly delayed, first by the battle over healthcare reform and now by Republican demands for more time to study the proposals.
In a move to stem the Republican protest, and quieten Democrat critics, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, said he would ask the Environmental Protection Agency to spend five weeks reviewing the potential costs of the bill. Opponents of the proposal argue the target of a 20% cut in emissions on 2005 levels by 2020 is overly ambitious, and will be too costly for US businesses and families.
The five-week delay would all but rule out passage of a bill before the Copenhagen meeting begins on 7 December.
The president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, acknowledged progress before the Copenhagen meeting was likely to be limited: "Of course we are not going to have a full-fledged binding treaty, Kyoto-type, by Copenhagen," he told reporters today, before meeting Obama. "There is no time for that."
Ban also pressed another key component to a deal: climate finance. He said countries would have to increase the $100bn (£61bn) a year on offer for developing countries to deal with climate change. "Financial support is the key," said Ban. "I think this can be a good start, which needs to be scaled up as we go on."
Development groups have estimated the money needed at up to $400bn a year. But the amount was uncertain, Ban said: "We have to see how measures are effective. As time goes by we may need to change arrangements."
Ban's senior climate adviser, Janos Pasztor, added: "The needs are obviously much larger over time and [the funding] will need to be scaled up."Developing countries are demanding significant new funding at the climate negotiations, which are continuing this week in Barcelona, and deep cuts in rich countries' emissions in exchange for pledges to curb their own emissions. Problems in the talks erupted in public today with African nations boycotting meetings, forcing their cancellation. They want rich nations to promise much bigger cuts in their emissions than they have so far, arguing that African countries will suffer most from global warming, yet are least responsible.

Al Gore's green investments prompt conflict of interest row

One company in which Al Gore invested has contracts with utilities that received a combined subsidy of $560m (£340m) from the US energy department
Ed Pilkington in New York, Tuesday 3 November 2009 22.15 GMT
The launch of Al Gore's new book this week has prompted questions about whether the former US vice-president's investments in green technology amount to a conflict of interest.
Gore's latest call to action over climate change, Our Choice: a Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, has prompted a debate about his involvement in firms investing in the new green economy that he promotes.
The New York Times points out that one company in which Gore invested, Silver Spring Networks, has contracts with utilities that last week received a combined subsidy of $560m (£340m) from the US energy department. The payments, part of a total $3.4bn handed out by the federal government to encourage the distribution of environmentally-friendly power, are likely to be handsomely recouped by Gore and his associates.
The accusation that Gore is trapped in a conflict of interest has been raised periodically over the past few years. It is a barb popular among climate change sceptics and rightwing bloggers, as well as Republican politicians. Marsha Blackburn, a congressional representative from Gore's home state of Tennessee, tackled him over the issue in April during a subcommittee debate in Congress on the Obama administration's proposed cap-in-trade system for curbing emissions.
She referred to Gore's partnership of Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, a Californian venture capital firm that has put about $1bn into about 40 companies that will be bidding for contracts under the new system. "Is the legislation we are discussing here today something you are going to benefit personally from?" she asked.
Gore, audibly riled, replied that every penny he made from his investments was put back into his non-profit foundation to spread knowledge about the climate challenge. "If you believe that the reason I have been working on this issue for 30 years is because of greed, you don't know me," he said, adding: "Do you think there's something wrong with being active in business in this country? I am proud of it."
One of Gore's partners at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers is John Doerr, who advises Barack Obama on dealing with the economic downturn.
Gore is also a founder of Generation Investment Management, based in London, which has substantial interests in green technology.

Five extreme ways to beat climate change

From virtual volcanos to space mirrors, science is exploring new ways to fend off global warming
David Adam
The Guardian, Wednesday 4 November 2009
Mimics the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption by spraying shiny sulphur compounds into the high atmosphere. Relatively cheap and easy to do, though it would require non-stop effort as the chemicals gradually fall back to Earth. Possible side effects include changes to global water cycle and rainfall. Would not stop CO2 build up and subsequent effects including ocean acidification.
Plausibility: 7/10
Ocean fertilisation
Dump iron into the sea to boost plankton growth and soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Hard to do on a significant scale and could contravene international laws on ocean dumping. Doubts about how deep the plankton would sink have raised questions on how permanent a solution it would be.
Plausibility: 5/10
Cloud whitening
Fleets of sailing ships strung across the world's oceans could spray seawater into the sky to evaporate and leave behind shiny salt crystals to brighten clouds, which would then reflect sunlight back into space. Could be turned off at any time, but might interfere with wind and rain patterns. Would not address ocean acidification.
Plausibility: 6/10
Space mirrors
Seemingly straight out of Hollywood; a giant sunshade in space could block the sun. More likely to be a collection of millions or even trillions of small mirrors rather than a giant orbiting parasol. Very expensive and would require some serious rocket building to enable so many launches, which could cause problems for the ozone layer.
Plausibility: 2/10
Carbon swallowing
Artificial trees could soak up carbon dioxide from the air using a chemical process. Technically possible but very expensive on a meaningful scale. Captured carbon would still need to be disposed of. One of the few options that could turn back the clock and reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere. Plausibility: 4/10

We only have months, not years, to save civilisation from climate change

International agreements take too long, we need a swift mobilisation not seen since the second world war
Lester Brown, Tuesday 3 November 2009 16.30 GMT
For those concerned about global warming, all eyes are on December's UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. The stakes could not be higher. Almost every new report shows that the climate is changing even faster than the most dire projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their 2007 report.
Yet from my vantage point, internationally negotiated climate agreements are fast becoming obsolete for two reasons. First, since no government wants to concede too much compared with other governments, the negotiated goals for cutting carbon emissions will almost certainly be minimalist, not remotely approaching the bold cuts that are needed.
And second, since it takes years to negotiate and ratify these agreements, we may simply run out of time. This is not to say that we should not participate in the negotiations and work hard to get the best possible result. But we should not rely on these agreements to save civilisation.
Saving civilisation is going to require an enormous effort to cut carbon emissions. The good news is that we can do this with current technologies, which I detail in my book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
Plan B aims to stabilise climate, stabilise population, eradicate poverty, and restore the economy's natural support systems. It prescribes a worldwide cut in net carbon emissions of 80% by 2020, thus keeping atmospheric CO2 concentrations from exceeding 400 parts per million (ppm) in an attempt to hold temperature rise to a minimum. The eventual plan would be to return concentrations to 350 ppm, as agreed by the top US climate scientist at Nasa, James Hansen, and Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC.
In setting this goal we did not ask what would be politically popular, but rather what it would take to have a decent shot at saving the Greenland ice sheet and at least the larger glaciers in the mountains of Asia. By default, this is a question of food security for us all.
Fortunately for us, renewable energy is expanding at a rate and on a scale that we could not have imagined even a year ago. In the United States, a powerful grassroots movement opposing new coal-fired power plants has led to a de facto moratorium on their construction. This movement was not directly concerned with international negotiations. At no point did the leaders of this movement say that they wanted to ban new coal-fired power plants only if Europe does, if China does, or if the rest of the world does. They moved ahead unilaterally knowing that if the United States does not quickly cut carbon emissions, the world will be in trouble.
For clean and abundant wind power, the US state of Texas (long the country's leading oil producer) now has 8,000MW of wind generating capacity in operation, 1,000MW under construction, and a huge amount in development that together will give it more than 50,000MWof wind generating capacity (think 50 coal-fired power plants). This will more than satisfy the residential needs of the state's 24 million people.
And though many are quick to point a finger at China for building a new coal-fired power plant every week or so, it is working on six wind farm mega-complexes with a total generating capacity of 105,000 megawatts. This is in addition to the many average-sized wind farms already in operation and under construction.
Solar is now the fastest growing source of energy. A consortium of European corporations and investment banks has announced a proposal to develop a massive amount of solar thermal generating capacity in north Africa, much of it for export to Europe. In total, it could economically supply half of Europe's electricity.
We could cite many more examples. The main point is that the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables is moving much faster than most people realise, and it can be accelerated.
The challenge is how to do it quickly. The answer is a wartime mobilisation, not unlike the US effort on the country's entry into the second world war, when it restructured its industrial economy not in a matter of decades or years, but in a matter of months. We don't know exactly how much time remains for such an effort, but we do know that time is running out. Nature is the timekeeper but we cannot see the clock.
• Lester R Brown is president of Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

Can we manipulate the weather?

Chinese scientists claim to be able to control the weather. But is so-called geoengineering more than wishful thinking? And, if so, should we be worried?
David Adam
The Guardian, Wednesday 4 November 2009
The unseasonal snow that fell on Beijing for 11 hours on Sunday was the earliest and heaviest there has been for years. It was also, China claims, man-made. By the end of last month, farmland in the already dry north of China was suffering badly due to drought. So on Saturday night China's meteorologists fired 186 explosive rockets loaded with chemicals to "seed" clouds and encourage snow to fall. "We won't miss any opportunity of artificial precipitation since Beijing is suffering from a lingering drought," Zhang Qiang, head of the Beijing Weather Modification Office, told state media.
The US has tinkered with such cloud seeding to increase water flow from the Sierra Nevada mountains in California since the 1950s, but there remains widespread scientific sniffiness in the west at such attempts at weather control. The chemicals fired into the sky, usually dry ice or silver iodide, are supposed to provide a surface for water vapour to form liquid rain. But there is little evidence that it works – after all, how do investigating scientists know it would not have rained anyway?
Such doubts have not stopped China claiming mastery over the clouds. Officials said the blue skies that brightened Beijing's parade to celebrate 60 years of communism last month were a result of the 18 cloud-seeding jets and 432 explosive rockets scrambled to empty the sky of rain beforehand. Last year, more than 1,000 rockets were fired to ensure a dry night for last year's Olympic opening ceremony.
"Only a handful of countries in the world could organise such large-scale, magic-like weather modification," Cui Lianqing, a senior meteorologist with the Chinese air force, told the Xinhua news agency after last month's parade.
Magic or not, there is growing interest in such attempts to deliberately steer the weather, and on a much larger scale. Next spring, a group of the world's leading experts on climate change will gather in California to plan how it could be done as a way to tackle global warming, and by whom. The ideas, some of which, similar to cloud-seeding, involve firing massive amounts of chemicals into the atmosphere, can sound far-fetched, but they are racing up the agenda as pessimism grows about the likely course of global warming.
As interest grows, so does concern about whether such techniques, known as geoengineering, could be developed and unleashed by a single nation, or even a wealthy individual, without wide international approval. "What will happen when Richard Branson decides he really does want to save the planet?" asks one climate expert. If China thinks it can make cloud seeding work, then what about geoengineering?
"If climate change turns ugly, then many countries will start looking at desperate measures," says David Victor, an energy policy expert at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Logic points to a big risk of unilateral geoengineering. Unlike controlling emissions, which requires collective action, most highly capable nations could deploy geoengineering systems on their own."
Victor is a heavyweight policy analyst, but one of his most impressive academic feats could have been to smuggle the name of the world's favourite secret agent into the sober pages of the Oxford Review of Economic Policy. "Geoengineering may not require any collective international effort to have an impact on climate," he wrote in an article published last year. "A lone Greenfinger, self-appointed protector of the planet and working with a small fraction of the [Bill] Gates bank account, could force a lot of geoengineering on his own. Bond films of the future might [enjoy incorporating] the dilemma of unilateral planetary engineering." Move over, Goldfinger.
Unilateral geoengineering worries experts for two reasons. First, the massive side effects; what it could do to the world's rainfall, for example. Second, once started, geoengineering would probably have to be continued, as stopping could bring an abrupt change in climate. "One of the many dangers with unilateral geoengineering is that once a country starts, it becomes very hard to stop," Victor says. "Removing a warming mask, even if it is a flawed mask, would expose the planet to even more rapid and probably dangerous warming."
In a world where action on global warming has created new markets in carbon worth billions of pounds, countries are not the only players. Geoengineering would require investment and the private sector is already eyeing up opportunities. Two companies have emerged with a business plan based on dumping iron in the sea and then selling carbon offsets based on the extra pollution supposedly soaked up by the resulting algal bloom. And in their new book, Superfreakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner talk approvingly of Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, whose company, Intellectual Ventures, is exploring the possibility of pumping large quantities of reflective sulphur dust into the Earth's stratosphere through a patented 18-mile-long hose held up by helium balloons.
This is the point where most people will shake their heads, say the whole silly idea will never happen, and skip to the crossword. They could be right, but the global warming story has a tendency to outpace most attempts to predict its path. Just a few years ago, scientists and politicians talked of the need to avoid a 2C rise in global temperature, yet experts recently gathered at an Oxford University conference openly talked of a likely 4C rise, which, without urgent and unlikely action, a new report from the Met Office says could come within many of our lifetimes.
A decade ago, an unproven idea called carbon sequestration, that would see carbon emissions from power stations trapped under the ground, was talked up by a small group of advocates, but was dismissed by most people as too expensive and unworkable on a large scale. Renamed carbon capture and storage, the idea is now mainstream energy policy in countries including Britain, despite still being unproven and dismissed by many as too expensive and unworkable on a large scale. Last month, the International Energy Agency said the world should build 100 full-scale carbon-capture power stations by 2020, and 850 by 2030.
If the geoengineering narrative follows a similar arc, then how long until nations or individuals that have the most to lose, or are the first to accept that the required massive emission cuts are impossible, turn to the presently unthinkable option? The US government, under President Bush, has already lobbied the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to promote geoengineering research as "insurance". When the Royal Society recently carried out an investigation of the options, senior figures privately expected it to dismiss the whole concept as nonsense. Instead the society, Britain's premier scientific academy, concluded in September that methods to block out the sun "may provide a potentially useful short-term backup to mitigation in case rapid reductions in global temperature are needed". The society stressed that emissions reductions were the way to go, but recommended international research and development of the "more promising" geoengineering techniques.
"My guess is that we will be taking geoengineering a lot more seriously in the next decade," says Victor, "but we won't be in a position to deploy systems for some time. Most nations will decide it is needed only if we have really bad luck as warming unfolds and if we fail miserably in controlling emissions. I put the odds of using such systems in the next 40 years at perhaps one in five."
Of all the apparent obstacles to geoengineering, cost is not likely to be among them. Compared with the expense of investing in renewable energy and phasing out fossil fuels, the cheapest geoengineering options come with a price tag of just a few billion pounds, perhaps 1% of what it could cost to tackle global warming through emissions cuts.
Alan Robock, an expert on volcanos and climate at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has looked at how much it might cost to carry out one of the most commonly discussed geoengineering options, to mimic the cooling effect of a volcanic eruption by filling the high atmosphere with sulphur compounds, which reflect sunlight.
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 threw so much shiny sulphurous dust into the atmosphere that temperatures across a shaded Earth dropped a year later by about 0.5C. The 1815 explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia triggered the notorious "year without a summer" and widespread failure of harvests across northern regions including Europe, the north-east US and Canada.
Robock has worked out the likely cost of technology needed to deposit a million tonnes of sulphur in the stratosphere each year, an amount equivalent to a Mount Pinatubo eruption every four to eight years, and which scientists think could be enough to cancel out the global warming caused by a continued rise in carbon emissions.
The cheapest option could be to use giant mid-air refuelling aircraft, such as the US air force's KC-10 Extender, filled with sulphur dioxide or hydrogen sulphide gas. It would be a round-the-clock operation, with nine aircraft each required to fly three sorties a day. In a new paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Robock and his colleagues say it could be done for "several billion" dollars a year. The results have forced Robock to revise a high-profile list of 20 objections to geoengineering he published last year. "It turns out that being way too expensive is not the case."
Robock's new analysis still includes 17 reasons why geoengineering is a bad idea. Throwing sulphur into the atmosphere could slow down the world's water cycle and do more damage to rainfall patterns than the global warming it aims to prevent. And because techniques that focus on stopping sunlight do nothing to stop carbon dioxide pollution from cars, factories and power stations, they cannot address the looming disaster of ocean acidification. The surface of the world's ocean is slowly turning to acid as our extra carbon pollution dissolves in seawater. Coral reefs already appear doomed and many shellfish could follow. Altering the atmosphere could also weaken solar power and reverse years of work to close the hole in the ozone layer.
With such a catalogue of potential disasters waiting to unfold, there must be a law against geoengineering? The international rulebook is fuzzy on this issue. The only international framework that directly covers many geoengineering techniques, the 1976 Environmental Modification Convention, designed to stop nations at war from meddling with each other's weather, has never been tested. The 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty could be used to regulate activities and experiments in those shared spaces, but releases to the atmosphere are legally more problematic because nations have sovereignty over their own airspace.
Rather than laws and treaties, many experts argue that the best way to prevent countries or companies from going it alone is to plunge in and start serious research. "The way to tame the worst forms of unilateral geoengineering is to promote a lot more research, especially [into] the side effects," Victor says. "One of the biggest dangers is that some governments will try to create a taboo against geoengineering. A taboo would stop a lot of research but it wouldn't stop determined rogues. That scenario would probably be the worst, because rogues would not abandon their efforts and the rest of us would not have done enough research to know what to expect."
Mike MacCracken, chief scientist at the Climate Institute in Washington, is organising the California meeting next spring, which aims to figure out some guidelines. He says large-scale unilateral geoengineering is "not very plausible" and his main concern is fairness to future generations. Once started by anybody, a geoengineering attempt would probably need to be continued by everybody else because it would offer a mask on global warming that could be dangerous to remove.
"It might be that this is how unilateral concerns should be reframed; this generation more or less deciding it will take only slow action on any type of emissions, essentially forcing the next generation to be more likely to have to invoke geoengineering to save much that anyone considers beneficial and unique about the Earth."
Read between the lines of most scientific reports on geoengineering and there is a tacit assumption that the idea sounds so extreme that merely discussing it will refocus efforts on emission cuts. But what if the reverse is true? What if a heavily funded research programme, and articles such as this, promote the idea to people who have little interest in moving to a low-carbon world?
"Knowledge is hard to hide," says Robock. "It would be great if people didn't know how to build nuclear bombs, but they do. We need to research and debate the consequences and then use politics and influence to let people know what would happen."

Rent clothes to cut carbon emissions, says green watchdog

Ben Webster, Environment Editor

Large wardrobes of seldom-used clothes are no longer environmentally acceptable and people should instead rent outfits and accessories, according to the Government’s waste watchdog.
The Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap) claims that overcoming our obsession with owning goods could be a “secret weapon” in meeting climate change targets. It has called for a fifth of all household spending, £148 billion out of an annual total of £732 billion, to be converted to renting by 2020.
In a report published today the watchdog calls for the transformation of a large part of the retail sector into a service industry specialising in renting goods, with each item used by many different people during its lifetime.
Wrap identifies five categories of goods suitable for renting: high-end clothing; glassware and tableware; tools and equipment for house and garden; vehicles; and telephone, audio and recreational equipment. On clothing, the report proposes that hiring should replace 10 per cent of the retail market within ten years.

Liz Goodwin, Wrap’s chief executive, said: “It could be quite liberating and free our homes and garages from all that clutter that we rarely use. By hiring, we can also get better party dresses and handbags or a better drill to do some DIY than we would be willing to buy.
“Why would anyone want to own that many things anyway? We need to have the confidence that we can get things when we need them but we don’t need to have them sitting beside us every day.”
Ms Goodwin, who said she owned only one evening dress in her “pitifully small wardrobe”, said people needed to understand the environmental cost of ownership. “I hope that, in the future, we will look back and be glad that we have moved on from the day when we felt we needed umpteen pairs of shoes,” she said.
The report, based on research by York University, calculates that better use of resources could deliver 10 per cent of the carbon dioxide savings that Britain has legally committed to making by 2020.
Shifting a fifth of household spending from purchasing to renting would cut emissions by about 2 per cent, or 13 million tonnes of CO2 a year, through a fall in manufacturing and lower consumption of raw materials.
A Wrap official said that there would be no net loss of jobs in Britain because most goods were manufactured overseas. He said that positions lost in retailing would be balanced by jobs gained in a greatly expanded rental industry. He also said that there would be additional greenhouse gas savings — not calculated in the report — from reducing the size of homes because people would not need as much storage space.
The report says that 20 per cent of the market for tools could shift from purchasing to hiring by 2020 and up to 90 per cent by 2050. On vehicles, it says renting could account for 20 per cent of the market by 2020 and 50 to 90 per cent by 2050.
The report identifies £143 billion of annual expenditure on goods that could have been used for longer. It says that clothing is only being used, on average, for 66 per cent of its potential lifespan. Using items for their full lifespan would save consumers £47 billion a year, it claims.
Wrap also calls for changes in diet to reduce emissions from livestock. Its report says: “The UK diet is currently too high in meat, dairy, high-fat and sugary foods and too low in fruit and vegetable intake.” It suggests that households could cut consumption of meat and dairy products by 25 per cent by 2020 and by 50 to 75 per cent by 2050.
Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, will attend a Wrap conference today at the Royal Society in London, where the report will be published. He said: “In the UK, we have just over 3 per cent of the global market [for low-carbon goods and services]. This will grow as consumers become increasingly environmentally aware and companies realise that waste is just a resource in another form and that sustainability is the key not only to the environment but to business success.”

CO2 from forest destruction overestimated – study

David Adam, environment correspondent, Tuesday 3 November 2009 19.49 GMT
The carbon dioxide emissions caused by the destruction of tropical forests have been significantly overestimated, according to a new study. The work could undermine attempts to pay poor countries to protect forests as a cost-effective way to tackle global warming.
The loss of forests in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia is widely assumed to account for about 20% of all carbon dioxide produced by human activity – more than the world's transport system. The 20% figure was published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 and was widely quoted after being highlighted by the Stern review on the economics of the problem. It is repeatedly used by Prince Charles and others as an incentive to push efforts to include forests in carbon trading.
Curbing emissions from deforestation is one of the main issues being discussed at a UN climate meeting in Barcelona this week, before crucial talks in Copenhagen next month.
But researchers led by Guido van der Werf, an earth scientist at VU University in Amsterdam, say that figure is an overestimate and that the true figure is closer to 12%. Publishing their analysis in the journal Nature Geoscience, they say the 20% figure was based on inaccurate and out-of-date information. "It's a tough message because everybody would like to see forests better protected and it is difficult to tell them that carbon dioxide emissions are less important than assumed. Still, the good news of lower emissions is no bad news for the forests," said Van der Werf.
The lower figure could make it harder to agree ways to reward forest protection, he said. "If you want to put a price on carbon [in forests] then you would get less carbon for your money now."
The study showed previous assessments exaggerated the rate of tropical deforestation. It also took into account soaring emissions from fossil fuel burning since 2000, which reduces the relative role of deforestation. The scientists say 12% is an estimate, and the figure could be between 6% and 17%, but that the original 20% figure was equally uncertain.
Van der Werf said an important finding of the research was the previously unquantified emissions from tropical peatlands, which they say could be as high as 3% of global CO2 – more than the aviation industry. "The total contribution of deforestation and peatlands is about 15% and is still a substantial contribution to global CO2 emissions, and therefore remains a significant opportunity for global CO2 reduction," he said.

Coaxing Auto Makers to Go Electric

What will it take to get more electric cars on American roads? Lots of federal cash and maybe the auto-industry version of a "buy one, get one free" deal.
The Obama administration is proposing to spur production of electric cars with a "build one, get one free" offer: Build one "zero emission" battery-powered vehicle, and get to count it as up to two vehicles when figuring the average fuel efficiency of a new-vehicle fleet.

The details of federal fuel economy rules are what those of us who refused to take math and science classes in college will be forced to read in purgatory. But government and industry officials familiar with the proposal say it works something like this:
Say Green Motors Co. builds 200 cars that emit 300 grams of carbon dioxide a mile, and 50 all-electric cars that don't burn any petroleum to operate. Those electric cars would get a rating of 0 grams of carbon per mile, and the car maker could use a multiplier of 1.2 to 2 when counting them toward a fleet-wide average calculation. So, in the best case for the car maker, 50 electric vehicles becomes 100. And instead of averaging 300 grams per mile per vehicle, Green Motors' fleet averages 200 grams per mile per vehicle—even though the company did nothing to the bulk of its vehicles.
That's a crude illustration, but it represents a scenario that has provoked concern from environmental groups in recent hearings conducted by Environmental Protection Agency officials in several cities, including Detroit.
"We believe the credit for a vehicle should be commensurate with its environmental benefit," says Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign in Washington, D.C. Electric vehicles are cleaner than most cars, Mr. Becker says, but they aren't strictly zero-emission cars. The electricity comes from somewhere, and in much of the U.S., that means a power plant burning coal.
Boosting Fuel Efficiency

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 11 of the biggest auto makers in the U.S. market, has testified for the credits as proposed. "The ability to earn, trade and bank credits" by producing electric and hybrid vehicles "is essential to meeting the goals of the national program," which calls for auto makers to boost the average fuel efficiency of their fleets to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, says Charles Territo, an Alliance spokesman.
The next two to three years could see the arrival in force of a new generation of electrified vehicles. More than a dozen car makers have announced plans to offer battery-powered vehicles in the U.S. by 2013, among them Ford Motor Co.'s Focus BEV ("battery electric vehicle") and Nissan Motor Co.'s LEAF. Chrysler LLC and Volkswagen AG also plan electric models, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, an electric-vehicle trade group in Washington, D.C.
Some upstarts are already out with electric vehicles, including Tesla Motors Inc., or plan to bring vehicles to market in the next year or two, among them a California company called Coda Automotive, which counts among its backers former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
Throw in partially electric vehicles—plug-in hybrids such as General Motors Co.'s Chevy Volt and similar models promised by Toyota Motor Corp. (which makes the Prius, the bestselling hybrid on the market), Chinese auto maker BYD Co. and U.S.-based Fisker Automotive Inc.—and people who want to drive a car that can go a long distance without burning petroleum will have the widest array of choices since the early 1920s.

Betting on Buyers
This outpouring of new electrified cars is a testimonial to the new mantra in Washington—policy creates markets. The U.S. government has committed billions in taxpayers' money to the proposition that American consumers will embrace electric vehicles in substantial numbers if car makers can just overcome the high start-up costs to build them.
The long-term question is whether a market dependent on government subsidies—financial and regulatory—can sustain itself without them.
The proposed extra fuel-economy credit for electric vehicles is supposed to end in 2016—by which time, presumably, mass-market demand will be self-sustaining. But the economic and performance advantages of gasoline-fueled internal-combustion engines could take longer to overcome than that.
One reason car makers are racing to get electric vehicles into the market is that "advanced technology" vehicles produced ahead of 2012 can generate credits auto makers can bank and use to reduce their overall fleet average—and cover temporarily a failure to achieve the mileage targets in the real world. Manufacturers that accumulate more credits than they need can sell them to a rival, offering another potential way to cover the costs for developing new green technology.
Make no mistake. Green is what this is all about—greenbacks, that is. Auto makers, particularly Detroit's battered giants, have no choice but to meet the government's demands for high mileage, high-tech cars. But they are still worried these cars will cost too much to sell profitably, especially if gas remains comparatively cheap.
"The business equation ... to make electric vehicles work doesn't exist without something like this," says Nancy Gioia, director of Ford's effort to offer electric vehicles world-wide, referring to the credit program. Customers want to see the extra money they pay for advanced technology recouped in fuel-cost savings in "at most three years," Ms. Gioia says, or even less.
That can't happen unless car makers can offset the costs of advanced batteries, exotic materials and extra engineering that goes into an electric car, enabling them to sell it for less.
Write to Joseph B. White at

Putting Green Technology Into Bricks

Start-Ups Seek to Use Recycled Materials, New Methods to Reinvent Building Materials
Amid buzz about algae biofuel and electric cars, some start-ups hope to use "green" technology to reinvent more mundane products like bricks and cement.
CalStar Products Inc. plans to open a factory next month to make bricks from fly ash, a byproduct of coal burning. It claims to use roughly 85% less energy than traditional clay brick manufacturing, with an equivalent reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions.
The Newark, Calif., start-up is one of many companies scrambling for a slice of the "green" building market, projected to grow to between $96 billion and $140 billion by 2013 from about $45 billion last year, including materials, technology and labor, according to research firm McGraw-Hill Construction.
Currently, the start-ups face a difficult market. Construction spending has plunged, a result of falling home prices and commercial real-estate values. But "the construction that is occurring is more likely to be green," says Michele Russo, a research director at McGraw-Hill Construction.
Some investors are following the same logic. Venture capitalists invested $465 million in the U.S. green-building sector in the first nine months of 2009, compared with $284 million in the year-earlier period, says market-tracker Cleantech Group.
"While the rest of the industry has construction has actually grown," says Paul Holland, a partner at venture firm Foundation Capital, which has invested in CalStar.
Other start-ups developing green construction materials include Calera Corp. and Integrity Block Inc., both in California, which make cement and concrete blocks, respectively. Icynene Inc., Mississauga, Ontario, has a foam insulation spray made partly from castor oil, a substitute for fiberglass insulation.
"Innovation is not necessarily discovering new things, but discovering how to use old things in a new way," says Amitabha Kumar, CalStar's director of research and development.
The process for making clay bricks—mining clay, forming it into bricks and firing in kilns using coal or natural gas—has remained largely unchanged for decades, though manufacturers have made improvements to reduce environmental impacts.
CalStar forms its bricks from fly ash—a gray, chalky byproduct of burning coal— and a proprietary stew of chemicals. During eight hours of steam baths, the calcium in the fly ash hardens, making bricks that look, feel and act like their clay counterparts, Mr. Kumar says.
CalStar says the bricks are designed to meet standards set by ASTM International, a standards-setting organization, for things like strength, durability and water absorption—and will be installed in buildings for the first time early next year. CalStar says the bricks will be priced competitively with commercial clay bricks. In Chicago, for instance, its bricks will sell for 53 cents apiece on average, compared with 55 cents on average per commercial clay brick, Calstar says.

Executives at the Brick Industry Association argue that CalStar's fly-ash products aren't bricks by definition, and question whether they'll last as long as clay bricks. "No one knows how the fly-ash unit will really perform," says Dick Jennison, the trade group's president.
Richard Klingner, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin who sits on the ASTM's panel for brick standards, says the ASTM's standards don't apply to fly-ash bricks. That doesn't mean they are unsuitable for buildings, he says, "it just means that there isn't a standard for them yet."
The Environmental Protection Agency says fly ash is not hazardous and has advocated its reuse in building materials, though an EPA spokeswoman says the agency is reconsidering the classification this year. Most fly ash is mixed into concrete or disposed of in landfills.
CalStar's Caledonia, Wis., factory will recycle fly ash from a neighboring Wisconsin Energy Corp. coal plant, making 40 million bricks annually and shipping only to nearby cities, to minimize carbon-dioxide emissions.
Cement maker Calera aims to capture carbon-dioxide emissions before they are released into the atmosphere. The start-up, is backed by nearly $50 million from Khosla Ventures.
In Moss Landing, Calif., Calera will pipe exhaust fumes from Dynegy Inc.'s natural-gas-burning power plant to its pilot facility, set to open this year, where it will flush the gas through seawater or brackish water. That will produce chalky substances it can use to make cement.
Producing one ton of traditional cement releases roughly one ton of carbon dioxide, says Calera founder Brent Constantz. But making one ton of Calera cement captures half a ton of the greenhouse gas. And like CalStar's bricks, Calera's cement is less expensive to produce than traditional cement, he says.
Write to Cari Tuna at

U-turn over government backing for wind turbine company

Peter Jones

A revolutionary wind turbine for the domestic market, which could provide 750 jobs, is likely to be manufactured in Scotland rather than abroad, after a last-minute change of attitude by Scottish Enterprise.
The move follows a report on Monday in The Times that Renewable Devices of Midlothian, a wind energy design company which has succeeded in manufacturing a noiseless and energy-efficient domestic turbine, had failed to win backing from the Scottish government agency, whose remit is to support new enterprise and create jobs.
An Australian company was prepared to invest up to £5 million in the world-beating technology but, as the Times reported, only if there was government backing to match it.
The company’s owners, University of Edinburgh graduates Dave Anderson and Charlie Silverton, who were keen to see the project stay in Scotland, had held talks with Scottish Enterprise, but a bureaucratic snarl-up seemed to have brought them to a stand-still, and it seemed as if full-scale manufacture of their machines would have to be switched to Germany.

Yesterday, however, Mr Silverton said that he had received a phone call from Neil Ross, head of Scottish Enterprise’s Scottish Venture Fund, which invests agency funds alongside private funds in promising new Scottish companies.
Mr Ross said: “I’ve spoken with the company today and arranged a meeting with them at their earliest convenience. We’ve been in conversation with the company about their equity investment proposal since February, and I hope that this meeting will allow us to move the conversation on.”
It is understood that the agency is now anxious to see the venture succeed in Scotland. The company has designed a small-scale wind turbine capable of generating 1.5kW of electricity, about half the usage of an average household. This is about twice as efficient as any other small turbine and has the added advantage of being virtually silent and vibration-free.
So far, Renewable Devices has sold about 1,450 of the turbines worldwide and has orders to supply about 300 units a month to Europe and the US — demand which means the company, which employs 40 people, has to scale up production to mass-manufacturing size, for which it needs investment of up to £10 million.
Sales had already attracted the interest of Insurance Australia Group (IAG), one of the world’s biggest insurance firms. It has bought a 2.5 per cent stake in Renewable Devices at a price valuing the firm at £49.6 million It was also prepared to invest up to £5 million in expanding the company, but it needed a written assurance of backing from Scottish Enterprise, which the agency would not give without a written assurance from IAG, the point at which talks stalled.
Last week, Renewable Devices’ owners met with Jim Mather, the Scottish Enterprise Minister, in a bid to break the deadlock. Yesterday Mr Silverton said: “As a result of the story in The Times, we have had investment inquiries from Abu Dhabi and Qatar. We are also getting the meeting with Scottish Enterprise which is what we wanted all along.”
Mr Ross said: “I’m keen to discuss the possibility of Insurance Australia Group becoming a Scottish Enterprise investment partner, which would help the company secure Insurance Australia Group as its private sector investor, with Scottish Enterprise co-investing alongside.”
The company’s turbine, which has been installed on offices and shops — including some Tescos stores, represents a significant breakthrough in making domestic wind energy viable.
Mr Silverton said that the German manufacturing company believed that under a licensing arrangement it could reduce the cost of the machines, from £6,000 to about £2,000 within two years,.
“But we would prefer to build it in Scotland,” Mr Silverton said.

Copenhagen talks could leave oil industry with a sinking feeling

Robin Pagnamenta, Energy Editor

Vast amounts of oil lie in the bitumen-rich sands of Northern Canada, but whether oil companies choose to spend billions extracting them will hinge on decisions made 6,000 miles away in Denmark next month.
Even at the best of times, squeezing crude from Alberta’s tar sands is an environmentally fraught process that is economic only with very high oil prices. The cost of oil production can be $70 (£43) per barrel compared with only $5 for the onshore oilfields of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.
The prospect of a successful climate deal in Copenhagen threatens to hit the industry with a cost that could drive it out of business: international carbon regulation. Like all big economies, Canada will be expected to agree to make cuts in its CO2 emissions of at least 20 per cent by 2020 and up to 80 per cent by 2050.
A key goal of the UN meeting is to create an effective global trading scheme for carbon emissions — a tool that would place a firm price on greenhouse gases produced by industry. A weak trading system of this kind already exists in Europe but governments want to create a bigger and bolder scheme that would penalise the use of high carbon fuels and drive global investment into cleaner energy.
As one of the most carbon intensive fuels around, the Canadian oil sands industry would be one of the biggest losers. So much energy is needed to heat raw bitumen into a usable crude that an oil sand operator typically uses up the equivalent of one barrel of oil for every three barrels it extracts. For the same energy expenditure you would expect 100 barrels from a conventional Middle East oil well.
There is a lot at stake. The Canadian Government collected more than C$30 billion from oil sands–related activities from 2000 to 2008 and about 240,000 jobs rely on the industry. Powerful interests inside and outside Canada are determined to find a sustainable method of producing oil from the tar sands.
Buying carbon credits to offset the industry’s emissions is one option, and oil companies have also suggested carbon capture and storage technology. Some have proposed using nuclear power to process bitumen — which would dramatically cut emissions but also create environmental complications.
Companies such as Shell argue that while synthetic crude from oil sands might not be a green fuel, coal is dirtier and produces even more greenhouse gases when burnt to generate electricity. They claim that giving up the oil sands would accelerate coal consumption.
World energy demand is expected to double by 2035 but supplies of conventional fuels are getting tougher to find and more expensive to produce, while cleaner forms of renewable energy will take time to plug the gap. Scepticism is growing over whether there is the political will to reach a deal that would destroy the industry any time soon.
Whatever the outcome of the meeting, the battle for the future of the tar sands will be raging in Copenhagen.

It’s a dirty business — the new gold rush that is blackening Canada’s name

Ben Webster

A giant mechanical digger gouges out a chunk of topsoil, grass and tree stumps, extending a neat furrow that stretches into the distance. Dozens of similar furrows run parallel with the regularity of a ploughed field.
Yet no crop could grow in the pitch-black surface exposed by the machine working 1,000ft below our helicopter. This is the edge of a fast-expanding open-cast mine in the Canadian tar sands, one of the world’s most polluting sources of oil.
It takes only a few minutes to fly across the 200 sq miles (520 sq km) of mines, processing plants and man-made lakes of toxic water. But Canada has so far extracted only 2 per cent of a resource that it hopes will turn it into a global energy superpower.
BP and Shell are among dozens of oil companies preparing to raise production from 1.3 million barrels a day at present to 2.5 million by 2015 and 6 million by 2030.

Canada faces a dilemma as it prepares for next month’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen. It wants to present itself as environmentally responsible but also wants the profits from the tar sands, which cover an area of Alberta’s natural coniferous forest larger than England.
The sands contain 174 billion barrels of proven reserves, the world’s second-largest reserves after Saudi Arabia. With improved techniques, Canada hopes to extract between 315 billion and 1.7 trillion barrels.
A Co-operative Bank study calculated that, even if all other carbon dioxide emissions stopped, fully exploiting the tar sands would still tip the world into catastrophic climate change by raising global temperatures more than 2C above pre-industrial levels. Extracting each barrel of crude from the sticky mass of sand, clay and bitumen produces two to three times as much CO2 as drilling for a barrel of conventional oil. The tar sands boom faltered a year ago as the oil price fell below the $60 a barrel at which the extraction process is profitable. Now, with oil at about $80 a barrel, hundreds of fortune seekers arrive each day in Fort McMurray, the oil equivalent of a gold rush town.
Two lanes are being added to the bridges from the town to the tar sands projects across the Athabasca River. The airport is planning a new terminal and oil companies have built four private runways to ferry workers to their sites directly. But the best indication of Fort McMurray’s growth is the constant traffic jam. It can take an hour just to reach the highway from the suburbs that have sprung up in the hills around the town.
The average house costs C$600,000 (£340,000) , but that is well within the budget of truck drivers at the mines, who, with overtime, earn C$180,000 a year. Many workers fly in from depressed fishing towns in Newfoundland and save money by living in mobile cabins stacked four storeys high in clearings in the forest.
Jean Fournier, 64, a scaffolder working on a new processing plant, says that he has earned C$64,000 in the past four months — working 24 days on and four off. “That’s three times what I could earn back home in New Brunswick. I’ve made enough money to build my own house and I’m retiring after six more weeks here.”
He scowls when asked about Greenpeace’s recent occupation of tar sands plants: “Greenpeace will make people starve by killing the economy. We all care about the environment but we need our jobs.”
With winter temperatures of minus 40C, the 112,000 tar sands workers are more concerned with protecting themselves from the cold than the world from global warming. A comment article last week in the local paper, Fort McMurray Today, begins: “Where the hell is the global warming some people are so worried about?”
Syncrude, which operates one of the biggest mines, is working hard to improve its image and recently handed back its first piece of “reclaimed land” to the Canadian Government. Publicity photographs show imported bison and young trees, but when you visit you realise that this is less than half a square mile on the edge of a wasteland of mines and toxic lakes.
Syncrude no longer refers to tar sands, the name used since the 19th century, because it thinks “oil sands” sounds more positive. It describes the topsoil stripped away as “overburden” and the toxic lakes as “tailings ponds”.
In April last year 1,600 ducks died after landing on an oil slick on one of Syncrude’s lakes. It took a full year for the company and Alberta’s environment agency to admit the scale of wildlife loss. To ward off another PR disaster, Syncrude has filled the lakes with orange scarecrows, known locally as bit-u-men.
Canada knows, however, that the biggest long-term threat to its tar sands industry is not dead ducks but international regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the crude is exported to the United States, where several states are considering banning it because it is so carbon-intensive. America’s dependence on tar sands is a sensitive issue in Washington, and Barack Obama’s ambassador to Canada toured the mines last month and questioned the companies about their carbon emissions.
Alberta’s latest proposal to rid tar sands of their dirty image is a C$2 billion subsidy for carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities. Shell plans to install CCS by 2015 at an upgrading plant but admits that it would reduce carbon emissions from its tar sands production by only 15-20 per cent.
Mel Knight, the energy minister for Alberta, which receives C$12 billion a year in revenue from its oil and gas industries, told The Times: “There has to be at least a hundred years of production in the oil sands and CCS will make this more palatable. My feeling is we will reach a steady state of five million barrels a day. The oil sands are critical [to] the global supply of energy. The world needs the energy and there’s no alternative that we can see.”
Shell plans to increase production from 155,000 barrels a day to 255,000 next year. BP is designing a plant with an initial output of 60,000 barrels a day, rising to 200,000 within a decade.
Canada has offered belatedly to cut its current CO2 emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 but wants to be forgiven for ignoring the target set at Kyoto a decade ago. Its emissions were 26 per cent above its 1990 levels by 2006: the Kyoto target was a 6 per cent cut.
Peter Lee, director of the environmental group Global Forest Watch Canada, said: “There is no place for oil sands in a low-carbon future. Canada is ignoring its global responsibility and betraying its promises.
“If we can’t get it right in Canada, one of the world’s richest countries, how can we expect developing countries to reduce their emissions?”
Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at Victoria University, British Columbia, and contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said: “If we burn the tar sands, we are effectively saying we don’t owe anything to future generations.”